Tag Archives: time travel

Donny Darko (2001) & Southland Tales (2007) – both written and directed by Richard Kelly, Donny Darko exec produced by Drew Barrymore

By Margaux Williamson

(My friend Ryan Kamstra, a poet and a musician, recently asked me if I could articulate why “Donny Darko” worked as a movie when “Southland Tales” didn’t. They are both poetic, intuitive and unlikely Hollywood science fiction narratives, set in the near past and near future respectively and grounded in the contemporary. They were both made by Richard Kelly.

A lot of people love “Donny Darko”. A lot of people have defended “Southland Tales”. It’s easy to understand why – “Southland Tales” is an unusual movie that seems to have been made with just enough hope to strain past private despair about America, the war, the end of the world and celebrity in order to try to say something meaningful about it all. It is the kind of movie that most people I know would want to make – if they were the kind of people who made Hollywood movies. All that being said – I bet Richard Kelly had wanted “Southland Tales” to touch more people than it managed to. I bet it was confusing why “Donny Darko” touched so many people when “Southland Tales” struggled to. This is how I understand my friend’s question.)


Donny Darko is a teenager who lives in a big white house. He is very smart and a little off – luckily his family is also very smart and a little off too. A tall bunny with a scary silver face, named Frank, communicates to Donny Darko in hallucinations. Frank often calls Donny Darko out of bed and Donny Darko, sleepwalking, follows him out of the house. Donny Darko often wakes up on the road or in a field or in a golf course. One morning, after waking up on a golf course, he returns home in his pajamas and learns that, in a freak accident, a jet engine fell from the sky and crashed into his bedroom. He was not killed because he was sleeping on the golf course.

Life continues. Life is the suburbs, the bus stop, the private school, the television and the Iowa landscape. There is the school bully, a dearth of good friends, a little girls’ dancing troupe, the national election and the town’s beloved motivation speaker who spreads his own brand of gobbledygook. And though it is hard to see where meaning is in this life, the whole movie has the feeling of a meaningful dream that you can’t quite remember – a suggestion that meaning is hidden everywhere, but we just can’t quite see it.

Frank’s visits increase as do coincidences in Donny Darko’s life. Donny Darko is not sure if he is a high-functioning schizophrenic or someone who has been chosen for a great mystical mission. We don’t know either.

“Donny Darko” simultaneously tells two mirror-image stories: one is of someone going over and over random events in their life until they seem to be full of meaning and etched in stone by god; the other is of someone going over and over random events in their life because their destiny was etched in stone by god and they want to stay on the right path. The very beautiful thing about Donnie Darko is that it is both. It is meaningless and aching with meaning. It is meaningful and heartbreakingly senseless.

And then there is “Southland Tales”.

Boxer Santaros (an action star with Republican ties) starts out with amnesia, a porn-star girlfriend, and a screenplay. We’re not sure how he got there, how long he has been in this relationship, or why he seems so untroubled by his amnesia. Though the back story isn’t clear, we are easily fascinated by Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) and his girlfriend Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar). They are both a pleasure to watch. This situation is followed by time-warps, neo-marxists, poetic tag-teams of conservative presidential candidates, internet surveillance, riots, quantum soul-splitting and other catastrophes. Boxer Santaros doesn’t know what’s going on and neither do we.

Luckily there is an equally fascinating, gun-wielding and bible quoting narrator, Iraq war veteran Private Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake). Unfortunately, he is a poet.

Some movies don’t work at all – things are consistently off key or, say, barely present. But “Southland Tales” is a different kind of not-working. In “Southland Tales” – though scenes contain humour, powerful moods and dynamic tensions – it is often difficult to understand what is happening, what people’s intentions are or even just who is who. It is hard to grasp the full weight and meaning of the narrative elements – and there are A LOT of narrative elements.

Near the end of the movie, when Boxer Santaros and Madeline Frost Santaros (his wife played by Mandy Moore) are reunited, alone together, in a luxury suite – no words of explanation or exasperation are shared. Instead, Boxer Santaros quotes Jane’s Addiction’s cryptic song of apocalypse “Three Days”. Madeline Frost Santaros quotes it back to him.

It is exciting to hear Dwayne Johnson quoting Jane’s Addiction to Mandy Moore with brutal sincerity in their luxury suite. If you sliced “Southland Tales” into 16 sections, you might have 16 remarkable poems. It is enough that Dwayne Johnson is quoting Jane’s Addiction to Mandy Moore in a luxury suite – that is a brilliant art show. That is something to think about. It is also exciting to witness an Iraq war scarred Justin Timberlake intentionally misquote T.S. Eliot to us while swiveling a machine gun around a crowd of civilians in a near-future Venice Beach.

But it is a very difficult task to turn 16 remarkable poems into a narrative movie. It is a lot for the director to control and a lot for the audience to pay attention to. In our attempt to grasp the full meaning of the complicated narrative (we assume that the director has given the narrative equal importance) AND juggle the depth of our culture’s beloved poetry, we frequently loose grasp of both. We are not good jugglers. So the power of the narrative’s turning points frequently escape us.

We understand narrative as well as we understand poetry (which is to say – not very much). But we have a great sense of both. We want to take meaninglessness and turn it into meaning, and we want to take what the world tells us is meaning and turn it into meaninglessness. It takes a lot of skill and luck to stay in the middle of those things.

In the familiar world of “Donny Darko”, we hold onto to the humble discoveries of meaning as tightly as Donny Darko does – they appear so infrequently. As we linger in this world, we also eventually begin to take the meaningless things and turn them into meaning – just as Donny Darko is beginning to do. There is not much else to do here and we have some time to spare. We begin to make out a beautiful and crazy (or senseless and sad) pattern. It’s a poem that’s inseparable from a narrative, a narrative involving meaningless tragedy and time travel – my favourite kind.

~
Southland Tales, section 16:

1 Comment

Filed under margaux williamson, movies, poetry, visual art

Mind Game (2004) – written and directed by Masaaki Yuasa, based on the comic by Robin Nishi

By Margaux Williamson

(I watched this animated movie at home with my boyfriend. We were going to go to the movies, but decided to stay home and watch a DVD and make popcorn. I didn’t know anything about it other than a probability website estimated that we would both like it 90% and that it played at the MOMA. Also, I liked the title “Mind Game”. I liked that it wasn’t pluralized, that it promised just one game.)


A young man, who doesn’t have enough courage to try to win the heart of his childhood sweetheart or to become a great comic book artist, gets shot in the anus by an angry gangster.

It happens at his childhood sweetheart’s family restaurant. He’s there with her by chance (she is now a beautiful young woman). The young woman’s new fiancé (stronger and more handsome than our man), her father (a no-good womanizing drunk), and her older sister (who runs the restaurant) are also there when a tired gangster and an angry gangster walk into the restaurant looking for the drunk father. The father quickly slips under the bar to hide. The beautiful young woman stands up to the angry gangster, and is then knocked down by him. The strong fiancé goes after the angry gangster but gets knocked unconscious. Our young man cowers in the corner on all fours. The angry gangster returns to the beautiful young woman, suddenly interested in raping her. Our young man makes a fearful noise from the corner. The sound distracts the angry gangster and he moves towards our whimpering man. He rests his gun against the young man’s anus. As the young man tries to get out a sentence, the angry gangster pulls the trigger.

As the bullet leaves our young man’s head, he goes to heaven. God (a radically shifting form) is getting ready for a date and explains to our man, with a great deal of distraction and irritation, what is happening and tells the young man to walk over there (God points somewhere to the right), towards his disappearance. The man begins walking to the right, but then he suddenly turns and runs the other way – back towards the world. God, now a tiger, tries to catch him, but can’t keep up with the young man’s sudden burst of courage. As the young man falls to earth, God watches from above, now admiring, and says quietly, I’m on your side. The young man arrives back in the world in the moments before he is shot. This time, things will be different.

This time, he saves the day and himself, killing the angry gangster. He flees the bar with the two women and leaves the drunk father and the tired gangster to each other. More heroics and panics ensue until the three young people end up in the belly of a whale with an old man. There, they have no other choice but to love, live, laugh and pursue the culinary, comic book and performing arts. Eventually, they attempt an escape through the whale’s mouth.

Before all this, the movie begins with a sequence of brief scenes. Some of it is familiar, but most is not. We can make out some “old footage” of westerners arriving from the sky with Astro Boy there to confront them. There is also a familiar 70 disco scene, a little boy getting a watch for a present, a beautiful young woman racing for the subway. Watching these scenes move by so quickly makes you feel a little bit like a confused and passive observer – observing things you don’t yet understand.

After the main story, we see this sequence again. Now we are familiar with most of the footage, the unfamiliar parts were from the story, some representing the characters’ earlier choices. There is also some new footage of the many possible futures for the characters.

I think the movie can be understood in lots of different ways. But for me, it told one of my favourite stories: The story about how maybe a person can slip back into the recent past and stop a terrible thing from happening – only to then learn that time is real and the past can’t be changed.

I’m not sure if this is an old story (told repeatedly by humans to themselves as they see some terrible event of their present turn into unchangeable history) or one that grows specifically out of the meaningless tragedies, missing gods and the puzzling physics of the (mostly) 20th century.

Here, in the beautiful “Mind Game”, it’s a video game fantasy of trying to stop something terrible from happening that has already happened. The movie contains literally shifting perspectives, subjective confusion, jokes about perceptual misunderstandings, a character wondering aloud if video games can be real – if this mind game can be real. It explores the path of being as heroic as you want to be, of saving the day (even a day that has already been written), of winning your love with patience and courage, and even of learning how to be an artist while killing time in the belly of a whale.

The heartbreaking thing about this movie is that it almost seems true.

1 Comment

Filed under comics, margaux williamson, movies, visual art